Francis Ford Coppola’s hypnotic, epic Vietnam nightmare, along with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) signalled the end of a particular type of film-making within the Hollywood studio system. After the collapse of the traditional studio system in the late 60’s, throughout the 1970’s, directors were granted complete artistic freedom. Budgets spiralled, creative whims were indulged and colossal egos were born amidst this cultural revolution.
The traditional Hollywood formulas had been failing, a counter culture was emerging and a new wave of young film school graduates were emerging, heavily influenced by European Cinema, the political climate of the times and emboldened by creative independence. In order to survive, the studios ceded autonomy to these directors for the first and for the last time.
By the time, Francis Ford Coppola began shooting Apocalypse Now in 1976, he was practically a veteran of the business. He had already set up his own independent studio, Zoetrope in 1969 established to challenge the studio system and produce mainstream and experimental films by up and coming film-makers (One of the first films he helped to produce was THX1138, directed by a young George Lucas)
He had also won a shed load of Oscars, as a screenwriter for Patton in 1970 and for producing and directing The Godfather and The Godfather Part II for Paramount Pictures. His films were artistic and financial successes and he was a powerful, maverick figure working both inside and outside the commercial system.
Adapted by John Milius from Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, Coppola intended the project to be a definitive statement on Vietnam and ironically enough, the effect of American cultural imperialism on foreign soil.
Armed with a 15 million dollar budget, what occurred over the next 12 months shooting in the Phillipines are the stuff of cinematic legend and are probably more compellingly revealed in George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola’s making of documentary, Hearts of Darkness but suffice to say, everything that could do wrong did and by the time principal photography had been completed in mid 77, the budget had spiralled to nearly forty million dollars.
After that, the film was then almost two years on post production, mostly to with the technicalities of the innovative, groundbreaking sound design by Walter Murch before it finally emerged at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979.
Fortunately, the film was a box office and critical success for Coppola who had poured his life’s blood into the project and it is now rightly regarded as a masterpiece, full of pretension and murky motivations as it is. For the director, it proved to be a high creative watermark and it possibly signalled a artistic purge of some kind for Coppola, a clearing out of his inner demons that may explain why he has never approached this level of ambition or madness since.
I’ve chosen the opening sequence rather than the infamous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ tour de force as it sets up the foreboding, dreamlike mood of the film without any dialogue thus fulfilling the criteria, well my criteria for pure cinema, a poetic combination of image, music and sound. Morrison’s voice, the wild orange napalm flame bleeding into the oil painting stillness of jungle trees, Martin Sheen’s detached gaze, the rhythm of the chopper blades overwhelming the senses; we are being dragged seductively, willingly into our own man made hell.